Is that a Parrott or Chambers Gun?

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.

Diagram from Chambers Patent

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:

Parrott Patent #33401

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.

Bells into Guns: Tredegar’s Bronze 6-pdrs

When discussing the long production run of the Model 1841 6-pdr, I mentioned Confederate manufacture of the type.  At least six vendors produced 6-pdrs using the Model 1841 pattern for Confederate orders.  As with Federal manufacture, the production of the type ebbed and then ceased by mid-war.  Tredegar Foundry, in Richmond, produced just short of thirty of the type before switching to 12-pdr Napoleon types in late 1862.

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Tredegar 6-pdr Model 1841, #1444, at V.M.I.

A recent visit to the Virginia Military Institute allowed me to examine two of these guns in detail.  While there is nothing I would point out that effected the tactical performance of the gun, there are some subtle detail variations to note.  Quite possibly these details allude to short-cuts made by the Richmond based vendor to speed production.   Readers may wish to compare photos here with the Model 1841 “walk around” post covering a standard Federal production gun.

Looking first to the breech end of the Tredegar gun, the profile matches those of pre-war production guns from Ames and Alger.  Although from this perspective the neck appears thicker.

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Breech Profile of Tredegar 6-pdr, #1444

Three tapped holes on the breech face show where the hausse seat mounted (and indicates these guns were at least prepared for field service).  The vent does not appear to have any bushing.  The weight stamp, usually placed on the lower breech face on Federal guns, is above the vent in this case – 850.  Tredegar #1443 also located in the trophy display has a weight of 838.

But the fine detail change seen here is the smooth slope from the base ring down to the barrel.  Here’s a view of #1443 to show this was not just a singular variation.

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Breech Profile of Tredegar 6-pdr #1443

Compare that with one of the first 6-pdrs produced by Ames, now on display at Fort Washington, Maryland.

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Breech Profile of Ames #33 at Fort Washington

There was, perhaps, a gradual evolution of the join over time, starting from the very angular early production.  By 1854, Alger had introduced a cavetto with a very fine fillet (see this photo, also used in the walk around linked above).  But Tredegar dispensed with the cavetto and fillet, offering only a slope down from the base ring to the reinforce.

Another detail change appears where the reinforce joins the chase.

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Close Up of the Reinforce-Chase Join on Tredegar Gun #1444

Again, compare to the very early Ames production.

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Reinforce Shoulder and Trunnions of Model 1841, Ames #33

Tredegar continued a gradual simplification and blending of the join and completely dispensed with the cavetto and fillet.

But Tredegar did not significantly change the muzzle profile.

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Muzzle Profile of Tredegar #1444

Other differences with the Tredegar guns involve the stampings.  On the right trunnion are the typical foundry stamps for the company.

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Right Trunnion of Tredegar #1443

The date stamp appears on the left trunnion.  According to the Tredegar foundry book records, these guns were cast in March 1862.

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Left Trunnion of Tredegar #1444

The foundry number appears at the top of the muzzle face, as is typical for Tredegar guns for Confederate manufacture.

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Muzzle of Tredegar #1443

The V.M.I. guns retain the front blade sight, which is often removed or broken on examples in the National Parks.    Such is the case of Tredegar #1127 located on Ruggles Line at Shiloh (representing Roberts’ Battery, which I referenced yesterday, by the way).

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Tredegar #1127 at Shiloh

This particular gun has the initials “N.C.” stamped over the trunnions, possibly alluding to manufacture for a state order early in the war.  Another gun of this type is on display at Edenton, North Carolina.  Tredegar cast #1531 from metal obtained from Edenton’s bells.  That particular 6-pdr served the Confederacy up to the end of the war.

As mentioned above, Tredegar produced under thirty of the bronze smoothbore 6-pdrs following the Model 1841 form.  The company also produced a handful of bronze 3-inch rifles, also using the Model 1841 form (thus providing an interesting parallel with the early James Type 1 rifles).  But a shortage of bronze caused Tredegar to shift to iron for 6-pdrs and 3-inch rifles.  Later Confederate authorities required another shift to 12-pdr Napoleons (often cast from melted down 6-pdrs) and Parrott rifles.

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Tredegar 6-pdr Model 1841, #1443

The four guns mentioned here (two at V.M.I., one at Shiloh, and one now at Edenton) certainly offer a small profile of early Confederate armament production. Early in the war Tredegar opted for proven designs, and often using less than desirable metals.  As the war continued, the bronze 6-pdrs gave way to heavier guns.  And were often sacrificed in the melting pot toward that end.

Perhaps further emphasizing the ersatz nature of Confederate weapons production, a copy of Jean-Antoine Houdon’s Washington stands beside the trophy guns at V.M.I.

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Bronze Washington Statue at V.M.I.

Recall the connection between that statue and the Washington Foundry which also produced cannon for the Confederacy.

NOTE:  If any readers can shed light on the “plaque” that appears between the trunnions on the V.M.I guns, I’d invite you to share via comments.

Cast for Training, Used in Battle: The Cadet 6-pdrs

Although the regulation 6-pdr Model 1841 remained in production right up to the Civil War, several non-regulation light field guns appeared from the mid-1840s onwards.  These were cast to fill militia batteries, private concerns, or for experimental purposes.  Both Cyrus Alger and Ames Manufacturing produced light 4-pdr field guns, some of which saw action in Kansas.  And some time back I mentioned the “Alger Eagles” at Shiloh, which appeared in 1844.  Although their purpose is somewhat a mystery, the exterior form hinted at some evolution during the period.  Cyrus Alger, without Federal orders for light field guns from 1845 to 1851, courted any paying customer of course.  Of these various lots of non-regulation types, the best documented are the Cadet Guns cast for Virginia, Georgia, and Arkansas starting in 1847.

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The Four Apostles at V.M.I.

The story goes that in 1847, the Virginia Military Institute had a requirement for artillery to train cadets.  But the institute lacked horses to pull full sized field guns.  V.M.I. needed 6-pdr guns, but significantly lighter than the full sized Model 1841.  Some sources credit Major Rufus L. Baker at Watervliet Arsenal with the design of a small “Cadet Gun.”  The original plaque beside the guns indicated Watervliet cast the guns.  But the trunnion stamps leave no doubt as to the vendor who produced the guns.

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Right Trunnion of Cadet Gun

Alger, with the lull of Federal orders mentioned above, cast four of the Cadet Guns for Virginia along with two regulation pattern 12-pdr Field Howitzers.  The Cadet Guns measured just over 51 inches from knob to muzzle (46 inches from base ring to muzzle), and weighed 570 pounds.  The full sized 6-pdr caliber bore was 43 inches long. The base ring measured 9.5 inches in diameter.  The trunnions were 2.8 inches in diameter, necessitating a smaller version of the standard field carriage.

Alger finished these guns in 1848, as evidenced by the stamp on the left trunnion.

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Left Trunnion of Cadet Gun

The weight of the four guns varied only by fourteen pounds between 562 and 576 pounds.

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Breech of Cadet Gun with Weight Stamp

The four guns bore registry numbers 86, 87, 88, and 89.

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Muzzle of Registry Number 88

Hard to make out, due to many years of use, are the initials “R.L.B.” for Rufus Baker, which further confirms the Major’s connection to these guns.

And all four received the Seal of Virginia over the Trunnions.

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Seal of Virginia

But the most interesting feature of these guns, from the standpoint of design, is the external form.

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Cadet Guns in Profile

For those of us looking at the guns from over 160 years after their manufacture, these look like miniature Napoleon guns.  There’s the muzzle swell and the very smooth lines back to the breech.  The rimbases join the tube without any blending.  About the only part that detracts is the base ring at the breech.

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Cadet Guns at V.M.I. with view of Breech Profile

So while intended for training cadets, these guns offered a rather forward-looking exterior form lacking in the service pieces of the day.  From an “evolutionary” look, the Cadet Guns were a step towards the smooth forms seen in Civil War gun production.

On the other hand, the 12-pdr field howitzers ordered at the same time conformed to the standard Model 1841 design of that caliber.

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12-pdr Cadet Field Howitzer at V.M.I.

In addition to the guns produced for V.M.I. the Arkansas Military Institute received two Cadet Guns in 1851 along with two 12-pdr howitzers.  The Georgia Military Institute likewise received four Cadet Guns and two 12-pdr howitzers in 1852.  The later were inspected by Benjamin Huger, but otherwise the entire set of Cadet Guns differed only with the state seal applied over the trunnions.

All ten of these Cadet Guns went from the training grounds to the battlefields during the Civil War.  Perhaps Robert Moore might offer a detailed discussion of the Virginia guns use by the Rockbridge Artillery.  But I will say the four Cadet Guns saw action at Manassas on Henry Hill.  The guns wheeled into battery opposite the 10-pdr Parrotts on the Federal line.  While the Confederates got the upper hand in that exchange, the front line service of the Cadet Guns was cut short as the Rebels acquired more suitable artillery tubes over the following years of war.

And yes, I must mention the red carriages.  As mentioned above, these were down-scaled versions of the regulation carriages.  The red paint ensured the cadet battery stood out when on parade.  However, I have always wondered how soon into the war the traditional olive color for carriages (as seen on the howitzer at V.M.I. today).

Let me close, however, by noting that the four historic guns at V.M.I., with their red paint and authentic carriages, are on display today thanks to the support of author Jeff Shaara.